With Bay of Pigs veterans serving as an eager audience, National Security Advisor John Bolton gave a speech to outline punitive policies toward Cuba, Venezuela, and Nicaragua. The main policy change was to repeat Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s announcement not to suspend Title 3 of the Helms-Burton law, which opens the door for lawsuits against any company that is “trafficking” in former U.S. property in Cuba. But Bolton also announced restrictions on travel and remittances to the island and expansion of sanctions against Venezuela and Nicaragua.
There are three reasons these new initiatives are problematic and likely to fall flat.
- The U.S. Lacks the Leverage to Make Credible Threats
One of the Bolton’s applause lines was that the “Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” His approach perfectly echoes the Roosevelt Corollary to the doctrine. Theodore Roosevelt stated bluntly in 1905 that “chronic wrongdoing” in Latin America could “force the United States, however reluctantly,” to use its role as “international police power.”
What a difference a century makes. Back then, the U.S. enjoyed complete hemispheric dominance. Now, for many Latin American countries the U.S. is no longer even the largest trading partner. Over the past two decades, despite U.S. complaints China has patiently put together large investment and loan packages that dilute U.S. leverage. The U.S. is by far the greatest military power, but can find no regional allies for the use of force. Russia does not appear to fear the possibility of the United States acting as police power, so openly sends troops to Venezuela.
It is perhaps fitting to make a speech about strength from a position of weakness while talking to veterans of a doomed 1961 invasion that ended with President Kennedy giving a speech about being “strong” and “visionary” while accepting complete defeat. Thus far, that has been the main outcome for the Trump administration in Latin America as well.
- These Policies Have Failed in the Past
Bolton framed the policy announcements as corrections to “disastrous Obama-era policies.” The Trump administration would thus finally get tough after what it deemed the failures of appeasement.
President Obama’s changes to Cuba policy in 2014 included normalizing diplomatic relations while expanding travel, remittances, and banking. Past policies had, in his words, “failed to advance our interests.” All those changes could do, however, was nibble at the edges of U.S.-Cuban relations, which are rooted in the laws that govern the embargo. The 1996 Helms-Burton law gave Congress sole authority to end it. The source of any “disaster” can therefore be found in the embargo rather than executive orders.
There is no rational way to view the embargo as anything but a failure, since—just as with Venezuela sanctions now—it’s raison d’etre was to hurt the population and squeeze the government to the point that the latter would fall. After 59 years, this has still not occurred. The Trump administration’s policy simply doubles down on what already has failed to achieve its objectives and is deeply unpopular globally.
- Making Fun of Socialism Is Not Necessarily a Good Campaign Strategy
Much of the Trump administration’s Latin America policy is aimed largely at potential voters in the 2020 presidential election. The main message is that socialism destroyed Cuba and Venezuela, and that the Democratic Party is intent on copying those economic models. Bolton referred to the “three stooges of socialism” to demean the governments and connect them as closely as possible with word “socialist.” The administration would, he said, “end the glamorization of socialism and communism,” a clear reference to Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who openly espouses democratic socialism.
This is an interesting semantic issue. If you ask Americans whether they prefer socialism or capitalism, they will choose capitalism, though younger people are more mixed. Yet simultaneously 60 percent believe it is the government’s responsibility to provide health care coverage, which is socialist. The word is somewhat tainted but the policies are popular.
A majority of Americans support the idea that government should provide universal health care and tuition-free college while also supporting free enterprise. Those views are even more marked in Millennials and Generation Z. As a political tactic, mocking socialism might rile up the Republican base but has limited resonance beyond it.
Where Does U.S. Policy Go From Here?
It is logical to expect a regular series of similar speeches and punitive policies from now until the next presidential election. They are almost certain not to achieve much, but that has never been an obstacle for this administration. The strategy is to talk tough, use sanctions, and court hardline voters, regardless of the effects on the citizens of the targeted countries. Losing is the new winning.
Gregory Weeks is associate dean for academic affairs and professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He blogs regularly on Latin American politics at Two Weeks Notice.